The inclusion of two women among the four candidates vying to become the next prime minister seems like a big step forward for Japan’s notoriously sexist politics. But their fate is in the hands of a conservative, mostly male governing party — and the leading female candidate has been criticized by observers for her right-wing gender policies.
Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda are the first women in 13 years seeking the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in an election Wednesday. The winner is certain to become the next prime minister because of a parliamentary majority held by the LDP and its coalition partner.
While both are LDP members, they are political opposites in many ways. The ultra-conservative Takaichi advocates a kind of paternalistic nationalism and a stronger military, while the liberal-leaning, pacifist Noda supports women’s advancement and sexual diversity.
“As tiny minorities in Japanese politics, women have limited choices to survive and succeed; they can confront the boys’ club politics or they can be loyal to them,” said Mayumi Taniguchi, an expert on women’s roles in society and politics at the Osaka University of Arts.
Takaichi apparently chose loyalty while Noda appears to work outside the mainstream but without being confrontational, Taniguchi said. “They are quite different.”
In the race to pick a successor to outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the women are competing against vaccinations minister Taro Kono and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Kono and Kishida are considered the top candidates; both are from well-known political families and belong to powerful party factions.
But Takaichi is seen by some as a fast-rising candidate, with the crucial backing of former leader Shinzo Abe, whose arch-conservative vision she supports. The latest media surveys of party lawmakers show she is beginning to rake in support from party conservatives, while Noda remains firmly in fourth place.
The only other earlier female candidate was Yuriko Koike, currently serving as Tokyo governor, who made a run in 2008.
While it’s unlikely either Takaichi or Noda will become prime minister, having two women try for the top job is considered progress for the ruling party. Some experts, however, have criticized Takaichi’s gender policies.
“She will most likely not promote women’s advancements if she wins,” said Sophia University political science professor Mari Miura. “She will emphasize her achievement in breaking the glass ceiling and declare that Japan is already a gender-equal country, even that it is ahead of the United States.”
Japan ranked worst among the Group of Seven advanced nations — 120th in a 156-nation gender gap ranking survey of the World Economic Forum in 2021.